One year ago, a brilliant soulmate died in the Sequoia National Park while on a hike with his daughter and two other friends. Greg Wise was a man full of life, big-hearted, creatively gifted, and deeply spiritual. Anyone who made his acquaintance knew him instantly because he “never met a stranger,” and was always authentically himself. News of his death took my breath away. I could not imagine life without Greg in the midst of it, constantly cheering me on, as he had for over thirty years. His wife, Mary Kay, (his “beloved” as he often called her), was at home when this happened. Since we have long been soul sisters, I was asked, along with another close friend, to go and break the tragic news to her. It was a horrific night of copious tears, stories, and laughter too as we sat in vigil waiting for the hikers to return home, trying valiantly to get a grip on this awful reality.
I am no stranger to grief. From my early teens, I have witnessed many tragedies and I never get used to the shock–perhaps no one ever does. However, life has taught me that it is possible to make peace with even the most egregious loss. This peace, or healing, comes gradually. The process cannot be rushed, nor does it follow a straight-line pattern. Memories swell at unexpected moments as life returns to “normal.” Right in the midst of the most quotidian task, anger, sadness, fear, and love intensely engulf the soul. But soon grace lands like a butterfly, sunlight streams through the clouds, and the feeling that it is good to be alive gently lifts the pain. We can, and do, find the strength to go on.
Ritual is a tremendous help in this healing process. To mark the year’s anniversary, Greg’s family and friends gathered at Doheny State Beach for a “paddle out” to mark both his passing and spiritual presence among us. Borrowing from the Hawaiian tradition, astride surfboards, friends paddled out to the end of the jetty, formed a circle, spoke words of love, and threw flowers and leis into the water in Greg’s memory. I do not surf but, like so many who live here, think of the ocean as a therapeutic healing place. The briny smell, the soft sand, and the sound of the waves on the shore are transformational. The salty sea, like a comforting womb, absorbs grief into its vast depths and connects us to the Divine Physician whose presence is palpable.
Many friends, neighbors, and mere acquaintances were at the gathering. I noticed that the somberness of past months had been replaced by a kind of radiance that especially shone from the faces of Mary Kay and her daughter, Mo. Love was in the air! Curiously, I learned that some only knew Greg through his weekly writings on the parish social media sites. He was an inspiring and challenging writer, sometimes criticized because of his stridency on social justice. I can still hear his emotionally choked voice telling me how much he loved and cared for the poor and how little he thought was being done to help them. I hear him punctuating conversations with his devotion to God, all the while struggling with the world’s hypocrisy that seemed to invade his soul. I also hear him laughing at life’s absurdities and telling everyone to risk all for love.
The vastness of the ocean always draws my eyes to the vanishing point that stretches miles out to sea. Fr. Ron Rolheiser teaches that if we keep our vision on what he calls the “infinite horizon,” or the “horizon of the Creator,” the disappointments and tragedies of life are all bearable. In essence, if we strive to always perceive “the bigger picture,” then even our deepest grief is mitigated. I streamed these thoughts and prayers toward the circle of surfers and looked at the beautiful flowers floating so gracefully on the water that bore witness to the cycle of life. Despite the inevitability of death, every day begs for our reverence and gratitude. Greg’s smile then came to mind because I know he knew. Then I smiled and turned my face toward the sun.
2 thoughts on “Healing Waters”
Donna, I think of Greg, whom I never met, every time I drink from the ceramic cup he made, which you gave me. Your description of the “yahrzeit” ritual is so beautiful, and so exotic for this landlocked desert rat. I have also been meaning to tell you how moved I was by your music sessions with Elaina and your book cataloguing with Olivia. What rich ways to pass on your legacy, and how lucky those young women are to inherit such a trove. Thank you!
Oh DC, what a beautiful tribute and point on descriptions of our Greg! It was a healing send off and the smiles and essence of Greg was with all of us that day. You are a vessel of companionship to all you meet and I am so blessed to be apart of the crew in your vessel!! Turn your face to the sun and put on sunscreen, of course!